Thursday, March 29, 2018

Skiing in Gulmarg

So I had time on my hands and I was itching to do something new. PADI certification has been on mind for some time but I wanted to be back in mountains. The two options open to me were Chadar trek in Ladakh or Skiing (Auli or Gulmarg).

Chadar dates weren't working with my schedule and hence, skiing was the only viable option. The FB recommendations were in favour of Gulmarg and a friend was able to help me with the logistics (instructor, hotel, airport transfers etc). All I had to do was book my flight tickets and reach Srinagar.

I landed in Srinagar at around 3 pm and had the vehicle waiting for me - along with my instructor. It took us 75 minutes to reach Gulmarg. While Srinagar was all brown, Gulmarg was all white - it was like entering heaven!

View from my hotel room
The hotel chosen by my instructor J turned out be great in terms of everything - its location is very close to baby slopes & the cable car (Gondola), and it is just 15-20 minutes by walk from the market. The rooms have floor heating and modern bathrooms - I had never stayed in such luxury in mountains :)

The proximity to market meant that I had my dinner (every evening) at a small joint owned by a friend of my instructor - it allowed me to have amazing Wazwan cuisine at reasonable prices and gave me opportunities to meet travelers from other parts of India.

Day 1 - J picked me up at sharp 10 am, in his car, and we drove to the rental shop next to baby slopes. It was less than a km, so walking was also an option. Once there, I was fitted with ski boots first. Next, skis were chosen basis my height and a pair of skiing poles were also provided. Having used mountaineering boots before, I was hoping ski boots wont be that bad - but I was wrong - they were actually stiffer and heavier than mountaineering boots. Even now I can't figure out how all the instructors walk in those boots so easily.
Working on my posture

J, then went on to provide me with some theory and did some demonstrations before making me wear my skis and start the downhill practice on baby slopes. While he was at it, a skier crashed into me at full speed causing me serious pain in left  hand and shoulder. The pain subsided but the fear of me crashing into someone else took its place and didn't leave me till the 6th day.

Anyway, I finally got my boots into the skis and started downhill - man it was scary...when I watched the videos later I realized that I was extremely slow but to me it felt as if  was going to fly off the face of the mountain. I just couldn't get to break using snow plough, I kept turning to one side and, as you probably guessed, the only way I could stop myself was by falling!

Once down the slope, I had to pick up the skis and walk back up while wearing those 2 ton boots. There was a tow bar that I could have used but since I had almost zero control over my skis - that wasn't about to happen today. By 2 pm, I was wiped out - thanks to walking uphill in boots and carrying the skis - so we called it a day.

enjoying the snowfall
Day 2-  I woke up to nice gentle snowfall - it was beautiful - falling so silently. J was back at sharp 10 am and I was back on the baby slopes - falling, cursing, getting admonished - but having fun thanks to the snowfall. J felt that I should  use tow bar today but I would fall within seconds of grabbing the bar - so he decided to hang with me the first 10 ft and then he would let go. Somehow that helped me get through the rest of journey to top without falling a lot (I fell only twice ). However once up, I wasn't able to get out of the way of the track as I would let go of the tow bar either a bit too soon or at a wrong the bar would be gone and I would start sliding back. Thankfully there were many people willing to help and they would grab my ski pole and pull me up and out of the way.

The snowfall continued through out the day and slowly it picked up intensity and by around 3 pm, my outer layer was soaking wet - thanks to waterproofing, the water didn't get inside but the chill most certainly did. The visibility had also reduced, so we wrapped up at 3 pm and headed straight to the market for some hot Kahwa.

Day 3, Sunday - snowfall had given way to a bright and totally white morning. Sun was out and temperature was positive again. Previous day's down jacket gave way to simple fleece and I started for the baby slopes fearing the tow bar but excited about another day of learning. My excitement was short lived as Sunday meant hordes of skiers at baby slopes - the wait for tow bar was 15-20  minutes. 2 minutes to come down the slope and 20 minutes to go back up. After about 2 hours of this, J decided to move to phase 1 slopes. I protested that I wasn't ready but since he felt otherwise, I found myself walking to the Gondola with skis on my shoulder.
Long queue for tow bar/ ski lift

This Gondola (cable car) is in two phases - first one takes you to Kongdori Station at 10,500 ft (Gulmarg is about 8,500) and second one takes you from Kongdori to Phase 2 (14000 ft). Phase 2 is only for professional skiers and ski patrols. Most folks go only for the breathtaking views. From Kongdori one can also take a chair car to about 12000 ft - but again that is not for beginners.

The Gondola to Phase-1 takes about 9 minutes and costs INR 740 for a round trip. Skiers, however, pay the same amount for a day pass - that allows multiple trips one way (Gulmarg to Kongdori) but return back to Gulmarg has to be by skiing only. A short video of the gondola ride below:

J had planned only one run for me today so he took a single one way ticket for half the amount and we were at Phase-1 groomed slopes by 1 pm. The whole run is about 6.5 km long and would take J only 5-6 minutes. Me...well I took good part of an hour that day. I was slow, I would stop for rest, I would curse and scream - but I didn't fall - not even once. How? J kept skiing in front me, BACKWARDS, the whole way to ensure that I don't fall. On steep portions he would actually hold me at the knees to break my speed. I was still not doing great at snowplough.

The worst part of this run was that it was long and the best part was that it was long. Confused? Long meant tiring but it also meant that it allowed me time to correct my posture and my technique. On baby slopes, J would ask me to correct something but by the time I could even understand what he wanted me to correct, the run would be over. Here, I could observe the mistake and correct. We were back at Gulmarg station by 2 pm and I was relieved that J had planned only one run for today.

Day 4 - it was just 10:30 am and I was already at Kongdori station -  man it would be a long day today!!!! The first run was bad - the icy slopes meant less friction and I just kept sliding and falling. At one point I just wanted to bawl, take off my skis and walk down the rest of the way - but I didn't. Not because I got some latent courage but because I knew walking 4 km in those ski boots will be far worse than skiing! So, I stayed at it, and finished the run in about 30 minutes. The moment we reached Gulmarg station, we were back in the line for Gondola - J felt that 9 minutes of ride was rest enough :(

Second run was better than first one and third one even more so. After third we took a lunch break and I did 3 more runs after that. My skiing time had reduced to 18-20 minutes by now. On an average, there was 9 minutes of cable car ride, 5-7 minutes at each station to get on/off the cable car and 20 minutes of actual skiing. So one run, end-to-end was about 40-45 minutes. Most people do 4-5 runs but thanks to "No Rest" policy of J, we could get 6 in by 3:00 pm.

Day 5 was more or less a repeat of the Day 4 with one exception - first run wasn't as terrible as the previous day - it wasn't great but not that bad either.

At phase 2 - 14000 ft
Day 6 - The day started with a long wait at Gondola counter for tickets - for some reason ticket counter wasn't operational. We managed to reach Kongdori station by 11 am and then took the second Gondola to phase 2. It was my last day in Gulmarg and I wanted to check out the views at 14000 ft. And they were indeed worth it.  After spending 15 minutes at at the windy phase 2, we came down to Phase 1 and started skiing around noon.

Today being the last day of training, I wanted to get as many runs in as possible - so we decided to forgo lunch break and do 4 runs fast. Since the first run of the day was at noon - slopes weren't icy at all - I had a good first run which built my confidence and by third run, I finally started to have fun also because I managed all steep (per my definition) portions without any help.  A short video of last day skiing below:

As I finished the fourth run I started to feel sad - a new feeling for me because usually I would be relieved that I survived the day . But today I had so much fun that I didn't want it to get over. Sadly, all good things must come to an end - and so did this ski vacation.

But the last day was so great that I promised to be back next year and listen to J constantly telling me to let go of my fear. Hopefully I will get to do one run at chair car level next year - if not I will be happy skiing at phase 1 slopes :)

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